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David Forde an inspiration to brilliant Graham Burke – and us all

 

Terryland Park will always be a special patch of Ireland to me and, though it would not have been especially acceptable to admit it, I was saddened when the ground was re-named after the death of a former footballer in 2012.

Simply, I had little idea of what a legend Eamonn Deacy was, all of which became apparent. The fact he had played for Ireland marked him out as unique as a Galwegian – not to mention his selflessness, the warrior he was on the pitch, how he came home from Aston Villa to play for Galway; ultimately, what a gentleman he was.

When Deacy returned to toil for his hometown club, he took no wage. There is an iconic flag now in the home of Galway football, adorned with an image of a bloodstained Deacy on the field, with the caption: “Gave Everything. Took Nothing.”

Galway United players do not play for Ireland but Deacy did. When David Forde did likewise in 2013, proud between the sticks against Sweden, he became the oldest player ever to make his debut for the country.

His route to becoming a top professional was rather different to Deacy’s. A tribute to their former player on the Villa website on his death recalled that the great man had written upwards of 20 letters to Villa manager Ron Saunders requesting a trial.

When Forde left Galway Hibs to join Don O’Riordan’s United to be Eddie Hickey’s understudy just before the turn of the century, he was “a big heavy lump of a lad,” recalled one of his friends and mentors.

“It was a dream come true for me,” Forde enthuses, “as I was playing for my home club and the team I had been going to see in Terryland since I was a boy.”

My recollections of ‘Fordey’ are varied, his time ephemeral at the club, but principally I can still see his physique, how raw he was; how he seemed capable of catching a cross with one hand; how erratic he was with the ball at his feet – often when it was stationary.

David Forde is capped for Ireland 24 times – Image Credit FAI.ie

“The main thing I remember,” Hickey says, “is that he always had a huge smile at every training session or on matchdays and was never phased about anything or anyone. I suppose that is why he got to the heights he got to.

“I had my doubts at first how far he could go, as he was giddy, but I knew if he put his mind to it he could go places as he had all the attributes to be top-class.”

Speaking for the first time to Forde, now 38, I could not but marvel at what he became and the example that he is to aspiring footballers in his homeland. He went from Galway to Barry Town, then onto West Ham United, only to become disillusioned and return home, flirting playing Gaelic football or that other thing you do when you have no idea where you are doing: an arts degree.

Who would ensure the book had several chapters left? The very man who saved so many careers at Dundalk subsequently: Stephen Kenny. He was at Derry and Fordey’s hunger was reinvigorated. How proud I was to see him play for City against PSG in the Parc des Princes.

Forde then went on to have a remarkable career in Britain, especially at Milwall, where he made 299 appearances. He was in goal for Ireland when John O’Shea pounced to salvage a 1-1 draw in Germany in 2014 and, while rather harshly treated by the Irish management team, he has more than his share of stories for the grandchildren.

Ultimately, he is something of a template for what you can be, how you can respond to setbacks, how it may never be too late. In addition, he can see himself playing where it all started for him professionally: in the League of Ireland.

“I’d never say never: I am always open to opportunities and chances. When I look at my career, some of my fondest memories are in the League of Ireland and I was always a big fan, always an avid supporter.

“Players coming back from the UK is something from which the league can only benefit.

And look at the amount of League of Ireland graduates now playing for Ireland. People are much more aware of the league.

“In terms of retirement, I wouldn’t put a cap on it as I am still enjoying it and still motivated: keeping clean sheets still makes me happy. I’m looking to the future too – next year is the final year of my Masters in Executive Coaching and Development.

“I stay in touch with Eddie Hickey and I advised Tadhg Ryan that moving to Galway United was a good move, that he was moving to a senior league that is recognised, that it would be a good challenge.”

When Forde started off, he learned from O’Riordan, who had extensive mileage from his time as a pro in Britain. Likewise Ryan returned from Premier League Huddersfield. Later Forde may come back and inculcate in the youth of Galway the knowledge he gained across the Irish Sea.

In the same year as Gelsenkirchen, he gave up drinking. Citing that his father was too prone to it, and its negative impact on his mind, Forde went teetotal in his mid-30s. If he returns to the League of Ireland, he may be startled by how little the players here now drink compared to when he started off. Professionalism is taking over in increments.

I’ll never see Eamonn Deacy go through someone for the noble cause in the ground renamed in his honour, alas – but to see Fordey back in Terryland minding the house for the club we both love would be one of those special things that the League of Ireland can render reality.

The cycle continues. Forde used meditation to help the mental side of the game (he says he was prone to bouts or rage; see ‘Taming The Lion’ on YouTube) and one senses that Graham Burke can sometimes struggle with that too. His background is complex – his father was lucky to survive a murder attempt in January – and the 24-year-old has understandably at times worn his troubles on the pitch.

His discipline betrayed that a little last season but his class was evident too. However, the former Belvedere man has gone to another level entirely this term, quickly becoming this year’s Patrick McEleney – albeit far more prolific: he is already top scorer in the league.

Burke’s goal in Waterford Friday was nothing new. Shane Keegan recalls a 14-year-old Burke scoring a bicycle kick from outside the box against a team he coached a decade ago; that precociousness, that innate brilliance, underlines something special.

Right now, he is the best player in the country; it is staggering in a sense that he is even here at all.

If & when he returns to a higher level, he can don the green shirt, just as a certain goalkeeper from Galway did.

Like Deacy, a former Aston Villa player, we should be privileged to be able to see Burke every week.

And if he ever needs to pick up the phone, he could do worse than ring David Forde.

Johnny Ward

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